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Cloned cat, for Rs. 22 lakhs



CUTE CLONE: Nine-week-old Little Nicky peers out from its carrying case in Texas on Wednesday. — AP

SAN FRANCISCO, DEC. 23. The first cloned-to-order pet sold in the United States is named Little Nicky, a nine-week-old kitten delivered to a Texas woman saddened by the loss of a cat she had owned for 17 years.

The kitten cost its owner $50,000 (about Rs. 22.2 lakhs) and was created from DNA from her beloved cat, named Nicky, which died last year.

``He is identical. His personality is the same,'' the owner, Julie, said. Although she agreed to be photographed with her cat, she asked that her last name and hometown not be disclosed because she said she fears being targeted by groups opposed to cloning.

Yet while Little Nicky, who was delivered two weeks ago, frolics in his new home, the kitten's creation and sale has reignited fierce ethical and scientific debate over cloning technology, which is rapidly advancing.

The company that created Little Nicky, Sausalito-based Genetic Savings and Clone, said it hopes by May to have produced the world's first cloned dog — a much more lucrative market than cats.

Other projects

Commercial interests are already cloning prized cattle for about $20,000 (about Rs. 8.88 lakhs) each. And scientists have cloned mice, rabbits, goats, pigs, horses — and even the endangered banteng, a wild bull that is found mostly in Indonesia. Several research teams around the world, meanwhile, are racing to create the first cloned monkey.

The debate

Aside from human cloning, which has been achieved only at the microscopic embryo stage, no cloning project has fuelled more debate than the marketing plans of Genetic Savings and Clone. ``It's morally problematic and a little reprehensible,'' said David Magnus, co-director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University. ``For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays.'' Animals rights activists complain that new feline production systems are not needed because thousands of stray cats are euthanised each year for want of homes.

Genetic Savings and Clone's chief executive said his company purchases thousands of ovaries from spay clinics across the country. It extracts the eggs, which are combined with the genetic material from the animals to be cloned.

Only for the wealthy

Critics complain that the technology is available only to the wealthy, that using it to create house pets is frivolous and that customers grieving over lost pets have unrealistic expectations of what they are buying. In fact, the first cat cloned in 2001 had a different coat from its genetic donor, underscoring that environment and other biological variables make it impossible to exactly duplicate animals. Scientists warn that cloned animals suffer from more health problems than their traditionally bred peers and that cloning is still a very inexact science. It takes many gruesome failures to produce just a single clone.

Improvements

Genetic Savings and Clone said its new technique, developed by James Robl, has improved survival rates, health and appearance. The technique seeks to condense and transfer only the donor's genetic material to a surrogate's egg instead of an entire cell nucleus.

Between 15 per cent and 45 per cent of cloned cats born alive die within the first 30 days, the animal behaviourist said. But he said that range is consistent with natural births, depending on the breed. Genetic Savings has been behind the creation of at least five cats since 2001, including the first one. It hopes to deliver as many as five more to customers who have paid the $50,000 fee. By the end of next year, it hopes to have cloned as many as 50 cats.

AP

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